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What to Expect from Your Supplier

Factory support is often promised as a catchall category. If everyone provides it, why is it different with each company? Probably because there is no

What to Expect from Your Supplier

Apr 20, 1997 12:00 PM,
Robert D. Grossman

Factory support is often promised as a catchall category. If everyone provides it, why is it different with each company? Probably because there is no formal or industry-accepted definition. To one person it means that they send out a catalog once a month; to another it might mean free childcare while you’re out installing their products.

First there are the basics: Returning phone calls, understanding their own product, giving accurate answers to questions, offering order confirmation, and providing timely mailings and product delivery. Many of the items mentioned in the article, such as repair policy and problem resolution, fall into this category. Aside from these, let’s look at some opportunities for your supplier to shine.

*Technical support: An average vendor provides technical support; an exceptional one becomes your co-worker. Look for one that follows up to ask how advice worked, or at least encourages you to check back in with your comments. Will certain suppliers only talk on the telephone, or do they perform on-site visits as well? How long do you have to plead to get them to come to your job site?

*Recommendations: No manufacturer provides every product for every job. Does the supplier come up with recommended substitutions? If you find one that recommends a competitor’s product because it can’t supply what you need, you’ve struck gold. If the supplier suggests substituting another one of its own products in place of the more expensive one you had asked for, that’s platinum! Both of these examples speak to honesty and integrity, and that’s a difficult quality to measure.

*Product training: When you attend a supplier’s classes, does the class really teach you something, or is it mainly a sales pitch with attendance cards? Are these classes offered around the country or just in the supplier’s in-house training center? Look for companies that have people with real-world experience and understand the emotional side of a problem. Chances are, if you’re stuck, such companies respond more quickly if they’ve been there before.

*Demo units: If you have a good product, the best way to sell it is to demonstrate it in the field, side by side with the competition. Better yet, send a standard product without a salesman so the customer can evaluate how it comes out of the box and is installed, how it’s documented, and what nifty accessories are provided. Suppliers who are confident jump at this opportunity. If they don’t, beware!

You’ve outflanked your competitors, won the contract, and now you’re on your way to victory with an installation you can brag about in your company brochure. But something isn’t working correctly, and a good reference or future business with this customer hangs in the balance. It’s time to call the manufacturer for service and support. You’re expecting an ally who will help you save the day, but all you get is a busy signal. At that point, you should ask yourself, is the service I’m getting what I paid for when I price-shopped for the biggest bargain?

We’ve all been there – to the end of our rope on the telephone, or in the midst of a heated letter-writing campaign, when we wonder whether we’re asking too much of a supplier. When we deal with retail products in this day and age of customer service, our expectations for service and support are quite high. But a large sound-system component – now that’s a big-ticket item. What should your expectations reasonably be, and how can you be sure to select vendors who will measure up?

How much is too much?As a vendor of professional products or services, you can’t necessarily compare your purchase experience to that of a consumer. When you purchase a razor or a toaster, you demand that if things aren’t perfect, you want another shiny new one or your money back, instantly and without hassle.

Although this is the professed intention of many sound and video vendors, here in the real world it is not always the case. For one thing, the stakes are a lot higher. The cost of goods or services is not as significant with many consumer items as they can be with, say, a console. Amplifiers and monitors cost a great deal more than razors and toasters. A consumer item also has economies of scale; a piece of industrial equipment has fewer units sold against which the cost of returns can be amortized.

To put this to the test, try returning a big-ticket consumer item someday. Chances are – with few exceptions – the vendor will look to repair it or otherwise make things right. The Maytag Repair Man might not be busy, but we sure don’t see him hauling new washing machines out to everyone who calls!

Manage your expectationsJust as the most difficult part of a project is managing our customer’s expectations, the first element of successful vendor relations is managing our own expectations. Once we know what we should receive and how we can go about getting it, we are in a much better position to negotiate that result.

So what should these expectations be? First determine the type of supplier you want to use. Once you know that, it’s simple to determine what to expect. For the most part the service you can expect is closely related to what you are willing to pay. The trick is balancing the need for support with the amount of money available.

We can divide suppliers and satisfaction levels into three categories each. Because the real world isn’t quite that simple, they represent the top, middle and bottom of each scale. If you have a particular supplier in mind, it will probably fall somewhere in between one of these types:

* Boutique: This is the top of the food chain, the cream of the crop. You buy a Rolls Royce from this type of supplier, and all of the other luxury automobile makers pretend they are at this level too. They’re not. Examples that approach this level can be found in high-end audio stores, custom hand-made consoles and cabinetry, and exotic speaker systems. This is not a mass-market outlet, so expect the quality, price and service to be at the very top.

* Baseline: The average supplier is a little like the average family – it don’t exist. Most suppliers and manufacturers will fall slightly above or below this category. Prices, features, response time and service are what you would expect; no more or less. These products are not always something to write home about, but they usually serve their purpose. Don’t expect 24-hour technical support, factory training or on-site assistance. Look for products that work as advertised but suffer occasional failures, and expect only a minor hassle in getting issues resolved.

* Box: If you have the model number, they have the box. This type of supplier will sell you exactly what you ask for but will know little about it. Support consists of taking the box back and shipping you a new one. Don’t ask for recommendations unless you’re looking for whatever they bought cheap and need to dump fast. On the manufacturing side, these companies buy whatever is available overseas, put their own label on it and hope it outlasts the warranty. If not, no big deal; they made just enough profit to throw away a certain percentage and give you a new one.

From these clearly defined types of suppliers, we can expect a similar level of service. As with the categories, few companies achieve the top level, but far too many make it to the bottom.

* Whatever it takes: These people really want you to be happy! There’s a Monty Python skit in which a married couple is eating in a fancy restaurant. When the husband discovers a smudge on his fork, he casually and politely brings it to the attention of the waiter. This brings out a parade of employees, each profusely apologizing and begging forgiveness. When the owner eventually comes out and falls on the table sobbing, we discover good service has gone too far.

Expect boutique service to fall just short of that. Look for toll-free technical support, extravagant documentation, assistance with system design and quotations, personal attention, factory training and the feeling that everyone in the company relies on you to keep them in business. Don’t be surprised by the occasional telephone call from a vice president or other mucky-muck to see that you’re still happy with them and whether your lawn needs to be cut this weekend.

* No surprises: Again, there’s no such thing as average. Expect more or less than this level of support. Generally, they’ll get back to you when you call them, make you jump through a few hoops but not too high, and give you pretty much what you want. They’ll have some support but, because they’re average and life isn’t, there will be times when they’ll be too busy and won’t be able to get back to you. They’ll do their best, and usually that will be enough.

* None: Although you usually get what you pay for, many times you get less. This is the land of busy signals and shipping delays. These suppliers and manufacturers are so cheap because they rely on small profit margins and high volume. To do that, they need to get your order and get off the telephone. There’s no time or money for added services or support; if they provided those services, their costs would increase as well. In this category the competition is brutal, and so is employee and customer turnover.

When you know these categories, it is easier to classify your projects and the suppliers for them. We all know someone who has been described as having champagne tastes on a beer-bottle budget, and yet we are all guilty of this optimism at one time or another. Did you ever see a great price on a shirt at a discount department store and discover that it no longer fit you the same after the third trip through the dryer?

The chart in Figure 1 makes it easy to look objectively at what to expect for your money. Make a mark for each of the manufacturers and suppliers you use. A mark in the lower left hand corner (low prices, high service) would be the unlikely ideal; the upper right hand corner (expensive and rude) is usually only achieved by certain Manhattan delicatessens.

When selecting a supplier for a project, simply move along the diagonal line until you reach the level of support and price that you need. Look for the mark you made closest to that point and you should choose accordingly. Most times, you’ll wind up right near the middle, and so will your suppliers. The process of making this chart and placing your vendors will quickly rule out any unsavory types. If they are like that New York deli, you’ll stop going there unless there’s another good reason. Maybe they have the best corned beef you’ve ever had, or they are the exclusive distributors in your area for the only product that will do the job.

The point is that sometimes we want champagne and are willing to pay for it; at other times we’re just in the mood for a beer. If the job calls for a few replacement loudspeakers or cameras with a very light-duty use and tight budget, a low-price, low-service supplier may be just what the doctor ordered. You know exactly what you want, and there’s no huge rush, so why pay more? At other times, you might not be familiar with the equipment or application and are not looking to make this job your life’s work. Using a higher-tier manufacturer is prudent in that case.

Deciding factorsMost suppliers will land somewhere near the middle of the chart, so let’s look at some tie-breakers. All other things being equal, you can look to several of these deciding factors, but most of them have price tags. The American Heritage Dictionary defines value as “An amount, as of goods, services, or money, considered to be a fair and suitable equivalent for something else; a fair price or return.” These items will add to the cost of the products, but the right mix usually reduces the cost of a job. To focus on value, look at the price of missed deadlines, boxes sent back for replacement and other factors when making your decision.

* Problem resolution: Expect to be satisfied with the outcome of a situation. Don’t be scared away from a product because of a flaw or problem. Many manufacturers look on that as an opportunity. One well-known microphone company once told me, “I almost hope you find a problem with one of our units. That way you’ll see how good our service and support is.” Anybody can make a mistake; the people who consistently solve them to your satisfaction deserve your repeat business.

* Problem avoidance: This is not as tangible as problem resolution, but far more valuable. It’s great to be able to ship products back with no questions asked, but it’s still a lot of trouble. Most manufacturers’ return rate for defective products is lower than the rate for customer errors, so it is clear that many of these problems can be avoided. A simple question, such as “what is the ceiling height,” can get you to double-check and avoid ordering the wrong camera lens or loudspeaker size. One well-known CCTV manufacturer has a reputation for taking anything back and replacing it within 24 hours. A second one will pretty much do the same thing but is known for asking lots of questions and assisting with the equipment selection process in an effort to solve problems before they even exist. The second manufacturer might save you more money and aggravation in the long run.

* Repair policy: This is a double-edged sword. Naturally you want to be able to send anything you feel is defective back for immediate repair with the least amount of hassle possible. To do this, make sure you fully troubleshoot the product and determine that it really is at fault. Although many manufacturers have advance replacement policies, people who send working items back for repair will soon wear out these privileges. In addition, if you send a working unit back to be fixed, when it is returned and reinstalled the problem will still be there. You’ll have to make yet another service call, and you’ll look bad in front of your customer. Better to double check and be sure than to keep solving the problem over and over again.

* Product ideas: Many top-tier manufacturers actively solicit your feedback. They want to make products that you’ll buy, and you want to buy products that meet your needs. A supplier that actually pays attention to your ideas and opinions is far more likely to understand your business and support you than one who does not.

What you can doNow let’s turn the tables a little bit. What can the manufacturer or supplier expect from you? Suppose the vendor is near the middle of the pack, competitive in price and above average in support and service. In exchange for meeting your needs and holding your hand when needed, what can the vendor reasonably expect from its customers?

First, no whining. Don’t call just to gripe. If you need a problem resolved, great. If you want to suggest a product improvement, that’s even better. If you find that you just need a shoulder to cry on, see a professional. When a manufacturer is really concerned about resolving issues and you don’t have one to resolve, you’re just frustrating the next customer who is waiting on hold for you to finish.

Second, be loyal to your vendor. If the supplier is working hard for your business and has made your life easier, consider your loyalty to the supplier. Many dealers and contractors profess to be neutral and to put in only what the customer asks for. That is an admirable concept and has its place, but there are many times a specific product source is not specified. Use those times to reward the supplier for previous jobs well done. Don’t be afraid to make recommendations to your customers and talk about your positive experiences. Remember that this supplier has already proved that it will work well with you. The more business you give the supplier, the more comfortable you will become with its products. Your installations go faster because of this familiarity, and you become an important client and receive ever improving quality and attention.

Why bother?We know why you want the manufacturer to satisfy you – you can’t finish your job until the manufacturer finishes its job. But what’s in it for the supplier? You’ve already placed the order, and the supplier must have bigger fish to fry. Two words: referrals and recommendations.

Let’s face it, companies that make things and sell them want to keep doing just that. The only way they can stay in business is to have old customers keep buying their products and have new ones start doing likewise. The reason they want to keep you happy has little to do with the altruistic vision of you happily using that little box you bought forever. More likely, it is an investment in future sales.

Studies have shown that it is far more cost effective to keep an old customer than to find a new one. However, suppliers must believe that, if they try hard enough, you can be satisfied. Again, put yourselves in their shoes – have you ever had a really difficult customer (silly question)? The question to ask such clients is, “Is it possible to make you happy?” If the answer is yes, you can question further until you determine exactly what it will take. Naturally, you’ll keep trying as long as there is a goal in sight. If the answer is no, you will often write that customer off and hope for better luck next time.

Fruits of the treeAfter a lengthy sales process, the company I work for won a major contract with a customer who until then had been buying products manufactured by a competitor. I had been very close to the decision maker, and through the course of planning the project, I did everything I knew to differentiate my company. We provided samples, demonstrations, acres of documentation and an extremely high level of support. I believed that service was truly the key to winning this account, and it looked like I was right all along when I finally got that phone call.

“Bob,” the caller said, “we’ve chosen a dealer and a manufacturer for our project, and you’ll be happy to know we’re going with your product.” Although I was happy to hear this, my heart sank at the next line. “I want you to know, our friendship and your service and support mean nothing to me. The only reason I’m buying your product is because I feel it’s the best for my application. Don’t read anything else into this sale.”

Well, the point was to get the sale, and we had done that. My reply was that, although I understood it might not be a priority for him, we were going to maintain that high level of support anyway. Kill them with kindness, my mother always said.

“Good!” was his reply, as if he had been expecting that answer. “Now that’s why you’ll get my next job, and the one after that. You get the picture.”

I got it loud and clear.

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